by GRAIN | 28 Oct 1993


"Biodiversity prospecting" is being tooted as a new and viable framework to marry conservation of biological diversity with sustainable development. In the past months alone, we have seen an explosion of books, studies, reports and articles discussing the concept of "bioprospecting" and how it can be implemented. Its proponents, who are boisterously trying to secure financial and political support for this approach, claim that Third World countries will not generate or reap economic benefit from their ecological treasures unless they learn how to market the goods. The negotiators of the Biodiversity Convention seem to be talking about nothing else than that. But marketing national biological resources -- once considered a global commons, free for the taking -- also means marketing indigenous peoples ' knowledge about them. This article explores some of the fundamental problems underlying this new push to commodify and commercialise the planet's biological and ethnobotanical treasure chest.


The past few years, and especially the past few months, have witnessed an incredible upsurge in talk about "biodiversity prospecting" and intellectual property rights (IPR) for indigenous people. Governments, pharmaceutical companies, non-governmental organisations, conservationists, lawyers, enthobotanists, and indigenous rights activists... It seems that everyone today who is interested in genetic resources conservation and development is buzzing with talk of making money from the rainforest and ensuring local people with a share in the profits. That the biological resources -- micro-organisms, insects, plants and animals -- of the "gene-rich" South are of tremendous value to the food and pharmaceutical industries of the "gene-poor" North is nothing new. That already lots of money has been made over the backs of local people that maintain these resources, is hardly a news item neither. What is new is the emerging belief that together, the custodians of biological diversity in the Third World and those who want to make money out of it in the North can do it in collusion now, through equitable and just partnerships. While the thinking behind this drive to strike fair deals in the historically inequitable "gene drain" of the South may be well-motivated, many proponents of the new bioprospecting mode of conservation and product development seem to be skirmishing some of the fundamental issues.

What is "biodiversity prospecting"?

In a sense, "biodiversity prospecting" dates back to colonial times. One modern definition describes it as "the exploration of biodiversity for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources", which is exactly what the colonial powers started doing in their search for spices, dyes, flavourings and other plant products many centuries ago. They found pepper, rubber, coffee, indigo, cacao, sugarcane, oil palm and hundreds of other plants that lay the foundation of a world order build around the extraction of those biological resources from the South to serve the accumulation of wealth in the North

Over the centuries, the methods of "bio-extraction" might have changed but the principles are still the same. With a better understanding of plant breeding, some scientists started looking for genetic combinations of local plant materials in the South to cross them into the crops that had become the basis of Northern diets. Other scientists started scavenging forests and coral reefs of the tropics searching for chemically useful plants and animals, and the medicinal knowledge of indigenous people, only to study them in their labs and turn them into commercially marketable drugs. In the end, all of this has resulted in a food system in the industrialised countries that heavily relies on genetic infusions from the South, and a health system that is to an important extent extracted from the intellectual and biological resources of local people in developing countries. While there is still some bickering over the exact dollar value, the importance of genetic resources from the South to today's world economy goes undisputed. As North American sociologist Jack Kloppenburg puts it simply, "Indigenous people have in effect been engaged in a massive programme of foreign aid to the urban populations of the industrialised North."

"Biodiversity prospecting" could be seen as just a new name for this old extractive process. But it carries a twist this time. Without doubt, the future of world food production and health care will, for the foreseeable future, continue to depend on the availability of biological diversity in the South, since that is where most of planet's ecological wealth is to be found. Scientists cannot "invent" DNA -- the genetic blueprint of life. They can synthesise or copy it, but they need a recipe first. The problem is that those recipes (the diversity of plants and animals) and the master chefs behind them (indigenous and local people) are disappearing under the guise of "development". International recognition that the loss of biological and cultural diversity is one of the most serious threats to our future has galvanised people to rethink the link between conservation and development. "Prospecting", as an enlightened version of "extracting", is being forwarded as a way to make consumer product development work -- and pay -- for conservation.

In the wide sense, biodiversity prospecting entails or supposes three types of activities: (1) protection of biodiversity, (2) collection and taxonomic identification of biotic samples; and (3) pharmaceutical research and development. The first activity is mostly carried out by local communities and natural parks personnel in the South. Sample-hunting and classification is normally the remit of locally-based collectors, whether their sponsors are national or foreign, while taxonomists are often specialists from the North. Collection strategies are either random (samples of anything around), targeted to certain species, or solely directed to local people's pharmacopoeia (medicinal knowledge systems). As for pharmaceutical R&D, the third activity, it is almost exclusively carried out in the industrialised countries. Over the past 30 years, over 90% of all the new pharmaceuticals on the health market were developed in the OECD countries.

Doing it better?

What is new in the flurry of interest and enthusiasm about bioprospecting is that it is being forwarded as a pragmatic tool to get some of the profits made on biodiversity by the industries in the North back to the countries in the South. There are basically three ways in which biodiversity prospecting is supposed to radically differ from the old mode of plundering and extraction: the corporations who want access to the South's biodiversity will now assign it a monetary value and pay for it; the money will be used for conservation, not profit; and compensation will now be provided to local communities. The main mechanisms proposed to achieve all of this are formal contracts between the countries having the biological resources within their boundaries on the one hand, and the companies interested in screening and exploiting them on the other. Such contracts would typically include upfront payments for collecting and taxonomic identification of samples and arrangements to share the benefits via a percentage of the royalties on new successful new. Thus, finding a new way to put some of money companies make from drugs and crop seeds back into the preservation of the original tropical treasure chest is the impetus behind the new bioprospecting drive. The shift is from uncontrolled collecting that only benefits the powerful, to a bilaterally negotiated approach where everyone wins...and the resource base is preserved. At least, that is the picture presented by the prospecting proponents.

One unique experience is being flaunted as the way to this future: the deal signed between Merck, the world's number one drug company, and the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio), a government-tied NGO in Costa Rica(see "Seedling", June/July 1992). Through the Merck/INBio scheme, the company has paid over $1 million up front for INBio to sample, screen and ship national biotic samples to the company's US lab for two years. As INBio's stated business is conservation, not profit-making, part of the money and a share of any eventual royalties from products patented by Merck are being passed from INBio over to the Costa Rican government for the state-run conservation programme. In the process, INBio is using the funds to train local people in taxonomy and participate in understanding and managing the national patrimony this way.

The Merck/INBio deal has been praised and criticised from all sides. What is important to realise is that the scheme has set a precedent and its patrons are vaunting it, not as a "model" for all countries to follow, but as a prime example everyone can learn lessons from. Their premise is that biodiversity prospecting through such collaborative activities can further conservation and economic development. We would thus move from a regime of "taking" to "sharing". If all parties recognise that biodiversity has to be paid for and involvement of the private sector requires confidentiality, royalty-sharing could generate new money for underfunded wildlife conservation and the development of national capacities in exploiting natural resources, including through biotechnology. This, after all, is what the Biodiversity Convention is aimed at ensuring.

The scheme, however, has many people wondering. With respect to the specific case of Merck and INBio, the Costa Rican example is a highly distorted one. Compared to most biodiversity-rich countries, Costa Rica has a high literacy rate, average per capita income of $1,500, a small and demilitarised society and almost no indigenous people. Although Nepal, Mexico, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Kenya are keen on following INBio's lead, few countries are so "well-geared" to strike a national agreement with powerful corporations. Secondly, there is the question how much there is to sell. Scientific reports suggest that Costa Rica holds 5% of all the world's biodiversity. If a few more countries join in fast to slash similar deals, the companies might have enough material to screen for a long time to come. Latecomers in the process might find themselves with a lot of biodiversity to barter, but no hungry buyers on the market. Finally, there is the question of the price of the deal. If Costa Rica, with 5% of the world's biodiversity, sells its share at US$ 1 million, extrapolation to the rest of the world's bioresource base would lead to the conclusion that the whole of the Third World's biological treasure would go for a mere US$ 20 million. This is only a small fraction of what the Merck company alone earns in one year!

There are a number of other things to keep in mind before jumping to biodiveristy prospecting as the ultimate, equitable solution. Up to now, the main proponents of bioprospecting have been looking at the potential benefits to be derived from screening plants, animals and micro-organisms for pharmaceutical uses -- although the value of biodiversity to other sectors is equally vast. The agricultural scene has hardly been looked at in this process and prospecting contracts with a view to isolate useful genes for agricultural crops might be far more difficult to implement. Who can effectively control which gene was found where, once it is incorporated into a commercially successful host? Secondly, according to pharmaceutical industry observers, most natural products research today done by major corporations involves the screening of microbial sources, rather than plants or marine sources. One handful of dirt from a tropical forest can contain thousands of micro-organisms that can be readily cultured in a lab without any need to return to the source. Who will trace back the origin of a single microbe when the company involved has no interest or need to go back to the original sampling site?

But apart from all these practical questions, perhaps the most important point on the table is whether the true custodians of biodiversity in the Third World -- farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, healers and indigenous peoples -- will see any of the benefits of the new wave in biodiversity prospecting.

Dangerous edges

Even if the current enthusiasm on biodiversity prospecting -- so far mainly found in books and papers -- does turn into practical reality, there remains a series of very fundamental questions on the table.

The first one is whether the commodification of biological material and indigenous knowledge is desirable. Biodiversity prospecting tries to assign monetary value to a resource that has long been considered a heritage of mankind. At the local level, biodiversity is a cultural and economic heritage of the people who have cared for and lived with it for centuries. The development, management and conservation of that diversity by indigenous communities is a process strongly interwoven with cultural realities, communal practices and specific worldviews. So the question still remains whether biological resources should be privatised. For many, this is a fundamentally ethical issue. Why should we allow one company to hold a monopoly on a gene that cures AIDS or makes crops withstand drought, even if he or she pays back part of the royalties? How can a nearby forest or local cassava variety -- cared for by many generations, utilised, nurtured and conserved -- suddenly be declared someone's exclusive good and traded in the name of (whose?) economic development? Should we reduce all our values to money and simply acquiesce to the single, Western concept of property? In the end it might lead to the further destruction of the societies of those whom we only recently started acknowledging as important caretakers of biological diversity. Inevitably, the destruction of those societies would lead to a further destruction of the biological wealth they maintain.

A second question is who will participate in and profit from biodiversity prospecting. Many people are complaining about the top-down model of development, with decisions taken at the top, scientists and experts leading the way, and the vast majority of local populations left alienated in the periphery to receive the benefits if they ever trickle down. Commercialising biological resources through the prospecting mode might hardly alter this skewed situation. In the case of the INBio example, the people involved are scientists, administrators and working class parataxonomists. The programme may demystify science as a means of getting some value out of the rainforest, but it will also scientize society's approach to the environment and may numb other values. In virtually all the cases of biodiversity prospecting up to now, the major stakeholders are the companies, nature park administrators, national scientists, and government officials. There is a considerable risk that the bulk of the funding coming out of the prospecting deals will be used to strengthen traditional "nature park" approaches to conservation. Unfortunately, as numerous cases in the past have shown, this often means the exclusion of local people from the process -- or worse, their physical removal from the to-be-protected areas.

This brings us to a third critical issue: the question of the role and rights of local and indigenous people in marketing biodiversity and their own knowledge of it. Even assuming that they would form an integral part of the prospection business, the question is how can local people exert control over the resources and their own intellectual integrity? Many NGOs and activists are currently searching for mechanisms whereby in any transaction that occurs between local people and extractive researchers (bioprospectors, anthropologists, germplasm collectors), community members can assert some form of control over the exploitation of their resources, be it indigenous knowledge or a particular plant. For some organisations, this control might be achieved through Western-style ownership rights as vested in intellectual property. While ethically it may sound fair, in practical terms intellectual property rights are a nightmare to fight for and administer. What good is a patent if you can 't pay for it, defend it, litigate and license it?

Of course there are many forms of intellectual property rights and experts are exploring all manners of applying them to the situation of indigenous communities and biodiversity. The outlook is dim, however, unless the basic rules and functioning of current IPR systems are totally reformulated. In the absence of appropriate intellectual property schemes, most pragmatists -- regardless of their political persuasions -- are advocating at least clear contractual arrangements between indigenous people and bioresource extractors. Codes of conduct and ethical guidelines are mushrooming like mad. But again, who will enforce them? How can local groups defend their rights?

The opportunities available in current bioprospecting deals include money, training, and technology transfer. It is obviously up to local people to decide what benefits they seek to gain from sharing their resources and integrity with others. And it's evident that local people can reap that benefit -- but only if they have the whole slew of rights and resources to process and enforce their decisions. Some groups will, especially the large, well-organised or cohesive communities. But the majority of the rural populations who have a legitimate stake in the benefits of biodiversity will not, given the grave imbalances of power in most countries.

Entering into contractual agreements or assigning intellectual property to indigenous groups so that they can harness the goods deriving from their knowledge and resources carries the real danger of diverting our attention from the most basic problems local groups are struggling with: the right to self-determination and land tenure security. It would be socially disastrous if the hype about making profits from the rainforest undermined this most fundamental struggle. It is in this sense that bioprospecting and all the processes linked to it, could reinforce the process of extraction that started in colonial times, rather than support the imperative fight for empowerment of local people and the conservation of their biological resources.






Abbott Laboratories (1950)

Microbes, plants

University of Illinois ; independent collectors


Boehringer Ingelheim (1986)

Plants, microbes

University of Illinois; New York Botanical Garden; independent collectors


Bristol-Myers Squibb

Fungi, microbes, marine, plants

Scripps Institute of Oceanography; Oncogen; independent collectors

Taxol from USA

Ciba-Geigy (1989 for marine; 1992 for tropical plants)

Microbes, marine, plants

Chinese Academy of Sciences; Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; independent collectors


Eli Lilly (1950s)

Plants, algae

National Cancer Institute; Shaman Pharmaceuticals; independent researchers


Glaxo Group Research (1988)

Fungi, microbes, marine, plants

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; Chelsea Physic Garden; Institute of Medicinal Plant Development (Beijing); Biotics Ltd; University of Illinois; National Cancer Institute


Inverni della Beffa (1950s)


In-house and independent collectors

Asia, Africa and South America

Merck & Co. (1991)

Fungi, microbes, marine, plants

INBio; New York Botanical Garden; MYCOsearch

South America

Miles, Inc. (1991)

Microbes, plants, marine, fungi

Contract companies; independent collectors


Monsanto (1989)

Plants, microbes

Missouri Botanical Garden

North America and Puerto Rico

National Cancer Institute (1960-1980; 1986-present)

Plants, microbes, insects, marine, fungi

US Department of Agriculture; Missouri Botanical Garden; New York Botanical Garden; University of Illinois; Kunming University of Botany (China); Central Drug Research Institute (India); Brigham Young University; Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; Australian Institute of Marines Sciences; Coral Reef Research Foundation; Smithsonian Oceanographic; University of Connecticut; University of Hawaii at Manoa; University of Miami; Michigan Biotechnology Institute; Tel Aviv University

Africa, Madagascar, Middle East, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Australia


Plants, spider venom

Natural Product Sciences (now lapsed); New York Botanical Garden


Pharmagenesis (1990)

Natural products used in traditional Asian medicine

In-house experts in herbal medicine; over 15 collaborating entities throughout China and Asia


Rhône-Poulenc Rorer (1991)

Plants, marine, microbe

University of Hawaii; Beijing Medical University; Shanghai Medical University; Tianjin Plant Institute (China); independent collectors

China , Asia

Shaman Pharmaceuticals (1989)


In-house botanists and a network of collaborators in Africa, Asia and South America

Tropical South America, Africa, Southeast Asia

SmithKline Beecham (1987)

Microbes, plants, marine

Biotics Ltd; Royal Botanic Garden Kew; University of Virginia; Scripps Institute of Oceanography; Morris Aboretum; University of Pennsylvania; MYCOsearch; in-house collectors

Malaysia , Micronesia

Sphinx Pharmaceuticals (1990)

Plants, marine, fungi, algae

Biotics Ltd; independent collectors


Sterling Winthrop (1988)

Microbes, plants, marine

Mississippi State University; Brigham Young University; New York Botanical Garden; independent collectors


Syntex Laboratories (1986)

Plants, microbes

Chinese Academy of Sciences


Upjohn Co. (1986-7)

Microbes, plants

Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica


Source: Adapted from Reid et al. (1993) and Cunningham (1993)



The ethics of patenting life and people's knowledge of our life support systems has never hit such a cliff as in the case of neem. The neem tree is native to India and other Asian countries, where rural communities have used its insecticidal and bacteria-killing properties since time immemorial. Neem is rightly part of many people's cultures, chewed as a toothcleaner or ground and sprayed on crops to keep the bugs off. The neem seed -- and its pesticidal compound azadirachtin -- is not patentable in any country because it is a product of nature. The knowledge that neem seeds are useful as pesticides also cannot be patented. The method of scattering ground neem is not a patentable process because it is not new. However, patents have been granted in the US for (1) extracts from pre-treated neem bark shown to be effective against certain cancers; (2) neem-seed extracted azadirachtin in a stable storage form; and (3) azadirachtin-derivative insecticides which have a greater stability than the naturally occurring form of the compound. One patent holder, Tony Larson, has licensed his formulation of neem, sold as "Margosan-O", to the chemical giant WR Grace. Public protest has recently risen in India against Grace's monopoly over what is originally an indigenous Indian technology. The cultural and ethical bias inherent to current IPR systems will never validate the intellectual innovation of indigenous people. According to the courts, their knowledge and resources are neither "new", nor "inventive", nor "unobvious". Yet when one person in the West takes a Third World technology and fiddles around with it, then it becomes an "invention" of benefit to humanity and deserving a stated-enforced monopoly. How can such a system be of benefit to the poor?


* Some 7,000 natural compounds -- all sources combined -- are currently used in modern medicine. Most of these had been used for centuries by European, Asiatic and Amerindian healers. For example, in the former Soviet Union, nearly 2,500 plant species have been used for medicinal purposes. In Southeast Asia, traditional healers utilise some 6,500 plants. Worldwide, more than 3,000 plant species are used by indigenous people to control fertility alone -- with debatable results, some may balk...

* In the vegetable kingdom, fewer than 2 percent of higher plants have been thoroughly screened for biological activities. Of the 120 active compounds currently isolated from higher plants and used in medicine, 74 percent show a positive correlation between their "modern" therapeutic use and the traditional, original use of the plant from which they were derived. In other words, as in crop breeding, rural folk working with local resources provide Western scientists not with "raw material" but highly sophisticated technologies.

* Without the input of indigenous knowledge, many valuable medicinal products used extensively throughout the industrialised world would not exist. For example, alkaloids extracted from the roots of the serpent-wood species Rauvolfia serpentina are currently used as a treatment for a host of health problems, most notably hypertension. Although used for centuries in India for many of the same human ailments, it wasn 't until the 1940s that the species came to the attention of Western scientists. By 1967 root alkaloids derived from R. serpentina and two related temperate species accounted for almost 90 percent of the U.S. market for antihyperactive drugs.

* In 1985 it was estimated that the world market value of drugs was some US$90 billion of which a full $43 billion was provided from medicinal plants. This figure has since been contested and should probably be lower. But the North's dependency on Third World sources is strong. According to the UNCTAD/GATT International Trade Center, the total value of imports of medicinal plants to OECD countries increased from $335 million in 1976 to $551 million in 1980.


One of the largest plant screening efforts led by the US government was carried out by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Between 1956 and 1976, NCI collected and tested 35,000 plant species, from tropical and temperate countries. Of these, 10% showed potential anticancer effects. Seven anticancer compounds resulting from the study are now in the final stages of drug development. One of these is the now famous "taxol", extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew. Taxol is today's most promising drug to treat various forms of cancer. NCI closed its programme in 1981, ostensibly due to budget cuts. Interestingly, a review of its efforts revealed that the programme's success rate in finding active ingredients would have doubled if medicinal folk knowledge had been the only information used to target species rather than the random screening practices employed. Given today's climbing interest in the loss of biodiversity and local knowledge, NCI has recommenced a major multi-million dollar programme to collect tens of thousands of plant specimens and folk knowledge from tropical forests over the next five years, to try once again at a cure for cancer or a prime weapon to disarm the AIDS-afflicting HIV virus.



- Alyward, Bruce, et al., The Economic Value of Species Information and its Role in Biodiversity Conservation: Case Studies of Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute and Pharmaceutical Prospecting, A Report to the Swedish International Development Authority, Prepared by the London Environmental Economics Centres and Tropical Science Center in collaboration with the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, London, July 1993.

- Axt, Josephine, et al., "Biotechnology, Indigenous Peoples, and Intellectual Property Rights", CNR Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress, Washington DC, April 1993.

- Cunningham, A.B., Ethics, Ethnobiological Research, and Biodiversity, WWF-International, Gland, April 1993.

- Cunningham, A.B., et al., "Intellectual Property Rights: The Politics of Ownership", Cultural Survival Quarterly, 15:3, Cultural Survival, Cambridge, Summer 1991.

- Reid, Walter et al., Biodiversity Prospecting: Using Genetic Resources for Sustainable Development, WRI/INBio/Rainforest Alliance/ACTS, Washington DC, May 1993.

- Shelton, Dinah, Fair Play, Fair Pay: Strengthening Local Livelihood Systems Through Compensation for Access to and Use of Traditional Knowledge and Biological Resources, draft report currently under preparation for WWF-International.

Author: GRAIN